Treating attention deficit disorder with healthy nutritional habits

More and more children in our society, perhaps up to 10 percent, are being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, or ADD. These children may have difficulty with focus, impulsivity, hyperactivity, organization and aggressiveness. Perhaps, secondarily, they'll have issues with learning disabilities, oppositional behaviors, depression, anxiety and clumsiness.

ADD is not necessarily a biological disorder. Kids can have a hard time in school for lots of reasons, including a school or a family not meeting the needs of the child, or a society that is itself hyperactive.

Many children with attention problems are prescribed Ritalin and other stimulant medications, which often do help the child pay attention but may have serious, negative side effects. Many parents would rather turn to more holistic treatments, including nutrition. It makes sense that a brain that is well-nourished will operate more efficiently than one that isn't.

When parents come to my office for help with their children's attention problems, I ask them to write down what the child eats for three days. This often helps them realize that they could be doing more to encourage their kids to eat well.

A large study of U.S. children found that only 1 percent met all the Food and Drug Administration's recommended daily allowances for nutrients. Only 36 percent met the minimal recommendations for servings of vegetables, and of those children, one-quarter of the vegetables they ate were French fries.

Most of us know the basics of good nutrition: eat more vegetables, fruits, healthy grains, and sometimes protein, and eat less sugar, soda pop, and processed foods. It is not easy to carry out, given our busy lives, but it is not high-level science, either. As a first step, I encourage parents to regularly sit down with their children for a healthy breakfast and dinner, without the television. This will support both good nutrition and family bonding.

Given the difficulty of eating well every day, a balanced vitamin-mineral supplement that at least meets the RDAs will support the health of most children.

ADD is a complex disorder, and different nutritional interventions help with different aspects of it. If a child with ADD also has dry skin and hair, eczema, or excessive thirst or urination, he or she may benefit from adding essential fats to the diet. These come from fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, from ground flax seeds or flax oil, or from a supplement of omega-3 fatty acids, possibly along with borage or evening primrose oil. It will probably take several weeks of following these dietary changes to see a difference in both skin and attention spans.

If the child is hyperactive, he or she may benefit from getting more zinc (found in meat, dairy, and seeds), more magnesium (found in green vegetables, nuts, and whole grains), and/or more vitamin B6 (found in bananas, potatoes, and whole grains). If it's hard to get kids to eat these foods, additional supplements may be useful.

Many children with ADD stabilize their behaviors on a food plan that helps them keep their blood sugars even, avoiding both low and high blood sugar. A good breakfast based on protein is a great start to helping a child's brain focus in school, and healthy low-sugar meals and snacks throughout the day will keep blood sugar level.

Food allergies may also cause problems with attention. Dairy, wheat, soy, and corn are primary culprits.

Some kids are sensitive to food additives such as aspartame (an artificial sweetener) and food colorings, especially the red and yellow ones. A holistic MD or naturopath can do blood testing to help figure out which foods a child might be allergic to, or parents can do dietary testing and behavioral observation.

Although many nutrition changes are difficult to make, kids will probably enjoy being encouraged to eat more red, blue, and black cherries, grapes, and berries.

These contain chemicals called oligoproanthocyanidins (OPCs), which help reduce the theta brainwaves that make a child space out. You could make a healthy breakfast drink or snack from frozen blueberries, whey protein powder, flax oil, and dairy or soy milk, depending on food allergies.

It takes time and care to figure out what your children need and how to get them to eat it. You may not see changes for several weeks. But good nutrition leads to good health in many ways, in addition to better focus and behavior.

For more information, I recommend seeking out health professionals with expertise in nutrition and also reading the following books: 12 Effective Ways to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child, by Laura Stevens, The LCP Solution, by B. Jacqueline Stordy, and The ADD Nutrition Solution, by Marcia Zimmerman.

Elizabeth Walker, Ph.D., is a Neurofeedback Therapist in private practice in south Seattle, working with people with depression, anxiety, ADD, PTSD, migraines, and other mind/body problems. You can contact her at 725-6926, or

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